Are horses born or made?
Both, actually. Good behaviour starts with good genetics and but it can also be encouraged by good handling and management.
The roots of behaviour can be tied to breed differences. In dogs, for example, in her book Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin describes a research study talking about submissive behaviour in different breeds. The premise is that dogs that display submissive behaviour are more likely to get along in a pack with less fighting, and dogs who more closely resemble wolves are more likely to display such submissive behaviours.
Fifteen breeds were compared, with German Shepherds being one of the breeds the least likely to fight, while Jack Russells and toy poodles were quick to throw the gloves.
To paraphrase, if the dog knows how to say, “I’m sorry” it’s less likely to say, “Bite me”.
When it comes to choosing a horse breed for general purpose use, a group of French researchers determined that riding horses that spend more time turned out than confined to a stall display better behavior and are easier to handle, and these differences were also breed-related. (http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=18215)
Camargue or Mérens breeds, which are similar to Quarter Horses and Morgans respectively, were quieter and calmer than others, while French Saddlebreds and Haflingers in this particular study were more emotive.
Where behaviour is genetically linked, we can do something about it by selecting breeds, and animals within the breeds, for temperament. The trait is called trainability, translated as their genetic predisposition to argue with us, or having a ‘nice nature’ – a pleasing attitude. It is a valuable trait, paying for itself in the time, patience and expertise required as we progress towards a well-trained partner.
Grandin maintains that our genetic selection for certain desirable traits has the unfortunate consequence of the selection for undesirable traits. That means that when we select for looks, for example (more muscled, longer hair, colour, height, you name it) we may be getting a horse that has some problems that come along with it (HYPP, deafness, reproductive problems, or socialization issues, to name a few).
We’ve seen this with dogs, where there are aggressive Labradors, German Shepherds with hip dysplasia, and Shelties needing braces on their teeth. We see it in livestock, where selection mainly for the best production traits has opened the door to reproductive, hardiness or temperament issues. For example, pigs that gain the most weight are naturally the most aggressive at the feed trough, leading to more fighting.
As Grandin points out, bad can become normal as we lose sight of the strengths of the original animals. Can the same happen to our horses? Are the horses I’m seeing with ‘powerful personalities’ being unintentionally bred that way, or allowed and therefore unknowingly encouraged to be that way?
The second factor in the behaviour equation comes after birth. As far as behaviour relates to environment, it only makes sense that a well-handled (socialized, respectful, however you want to put it) foal will make a well-adjusted adult.
While I’m uncomfortable with imprinting for a few reasons I won’t get into here, I believe that a few gentle sessions with young foals, cradling them, haltering them, and picking up their feet when they are a month or two old, will carry long-term weight in terms of respect.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to encourage submissive behaviour (softness and giving to pressure) and discourage disrespectful behaviour (head butting, pushiness, biting, pawing) with consistent and fair correction, lessons that will last a lifetime.
Whether they are born or made, some horses are definitely not meant for beginners; a good personality match is as important as physical characteristics for a healthy and safe relationship.